This article first appeared on LinkedIn.
The retail industry is in a state of flux for a number of reasons – concerns over footfall, increasing demands on the bottom line to maintain and improve store space and the growing expectations of tech-aware customers are just a few.
While retail strategists tackle the tangle of issues around ‘hard’ factors such as stock control and store development, there’s one key ‘soft’ area which is sometimes overlooked in the scramble to upgrade the customer experience - one which should be giving retailers pause for thought if they want to secure a long-term future. In fact, it is so vital to the entire concept of high street shopping that, if you get this aspect right, the others will become much easier to resolve.
Digitally-aware, properly-equipped sales colleagues are at the heart of profitable retail
Rapid advances in AI, machine learning and cognitive commerce have led to some alarming predictions over the future of employment – PwC forecasts that more than 10 million UK jobs are at risk, and 2.5 million of those will be in retail. There’s no doubt that the shift towards automation will trigger a radical rethink of how to handle retail employment – as hygiene aspects of customer service inevitably become automated, sales colleagues will be required to step up and become trusted advisors to the increasing number of shoppers wanting more than just a transactional experience from their store visits.
They can’t possibly fill this more demanding role if they don’t have everything from customer profiles to inventory both online and in-store at their fingertips, coupled with the power to actually do something to meet real-time customer needs. And to achieve this, retailers will have to implement three fundamental initiatives:
Give colleagues at least the same level of tech as customers
Forrester’s Digital Store Playbook uncovered a truth that should resonate with all retailers: ‘The consumer has been ahead of the retailer since day one. The retailer is in a sense chasing the consumer’. Today’s customers literally have the power in their pocket to browse, select and buy products any time, anywhere, and they expect to have the same level of service and access to information in-aisle. The base line for relevant, effective service in-store should be sales colleagues with access to the same level of digital content and technical power as their customers. Deprive them of the devices and data they need to do their job properly and they cannot hope to provide customers with information and advice when, for example, they are asked about the latest online range or marketing campaign. This damages not only sales but also colleague morale – research suggests that 50% of sales colleagues felt embarrassed by their lack of product knowledge with a significant percentage admitting that this made them feel upset, awkward and angry around customers, while 73% admitted to sending customers to a different store or sales colleague because they couldn’t answer simple questions about a product.
Bring the benefits of online in-store
We’re in a post-channel world - the lines between online and offline have all but been erased in the mind of the customer, and this is a key area where retailers need to empower colleagues to keep ahead of their demands.
Offering colleague-led online services in-store has been shown to increase revenue by 1-3% and secondary purchases by up to 35%. This is because sales colleagues with all-round knowledge of customers’ wants and needs, stock availability and product information, all delivered via real-time dashboards on tablet, mobile and even wearable device, can provide exactly the right level of service, from online ordering in-store to upselling appropriate products.
This can only be achieved through connected data, allowing information to flow freely between business areas, devices and back-end systems such as eCommerce and CRM so that it can be quickly picked up and intelligently applied throughout the customer journey. Using a digital store platform to free up both existing and new systems to talk to each other in real time allows retailers and colleagues to:
· identify customers
· offer personalised service
· enable seamless checkouts
· improve their operational performance
as well as respond to feedback in a way which makes the customer feel valued and listened to. Customers have the freedom to review and find stock online and in other stores, place an order and choose their preferred method of delivery. At busy times of the year, colleagues equipped with the means to find stock, take orders and process payments while on the shop floor can help to reduce queues and maintain sales and service levels.
Transcend the transactional with clienteling
What separates the automatons from the sales associates is the ability to identify and empathise with customer emotions, which often play a vital part in making a purchase. Once mundane tasks are removed from their duties, sales colleagues will be able to focus on the more ‘human’ elements of service which AI simply can’t replicate and, as a result, see their roles become more respected and better paid. The ability to provide a truly personalised, one-to-one experience based on shared data, from past purchases and tailored communications to personal tastes and product reviews, is what will drive in-store visits beyond the transactional:
· In-depth customer insight will give a complete picture of activity online and in-store for personalised recommendations and cross-sell opportunities
· Access to exclusive content and advance ranges will inspire interaction and increases engagement
· Personalised conversations will deliver a VIP service and reinforce the value of having a highly-motivated and knowledgeable shopping companion
In a very real and practical sense, the future of the high street is in the hands of the front-line staff. It makes business sense to place in those hands the technology that can transform the industry as a whole and their jobs in particular.